Household food insecurity: it’s not just about food
Food bank use in Canada reached its highest level in history in March 2022. At nearly 1.5 million visits, this represents a 15% increase since 2021 and a 35% increase since 2019. This record occurs while many Canadians are experiencing crushing costs of living and inflation combined with wages and social supports that do not keep up with needs. In fact, food bank use significantly underestimates the severity of food insecurity. The pervasive focus on food banks as a strategic solution to household food insecurity highlights misplaced government priorities and a lack of progress.
Household food insecurity is the uncertain or inadequate access to food of sufficient quantity/quality, because of financial constraints. Food insecurity is more likely to affect households with lower incomes, and occurs at different levels of intensity where greater insecurity corresponds to worse health and social outcomes. In 2021, at least 15.9% of households, or 5.8 million people across Canada’s provinces were living with insecure or inadequate access to food. This figure is likely much higher for territories, particularly in Nunavut, which had a food insecurity rate of 57% in 2018. There are also racial disparities in food insecurity, with Indigenous and Black households experiencing 2-3 times higher rates than white households.
Food insecurity is an important marker of material deprivation and a social determinant of health. It is associated with a host of health conditions including diabetes, oral health problems, cardiovascular disease, anxiety and depression, chronic pain, infectious diseases, and premature death. Food insecurity leaves people with fewer resources to manage chronic conditions, eventually leading to increased health care use and spending, including longer and more frequent hospital stays for numerous health conditions.
Causes and consequences of food insecurity are not just a lack of food. Food-insecure households struggle with multiple unmet needs, including housing and utilities. By the time someone in a food-insecure household visits a food bank, they have often exhausted other means of staying financially afloat, including asking loved ones for help, skipping meals, missing bill payments, and stretching out medications.
The federal government funneled $200 million into food charity near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Government investments into food banks continued, now in response to inflation– yet high food insecurity rates persist. This is because food insecurity is not a food issue, but an income issue. So, why are governments investing in food banks to solve the problem?
Food banks and charitable donations have been a popular solution to hunger in Canada for 40 years—but they are an emergency stopgap, not a solution. The prevalent social and cultural understanding of food insecurity, which sees food insecurity as a food issue, fosters complacency with this solution. It lets governments off the hook for their responsibility to address hunger and poverty (two Sustainable Development Goals), and it forces local communities to answer ever-increasing demands that our current policies and social safety net are unable to fulfill.
People with primary incomes from provincial social assistance have incomes far below the poverty line, and make up almost half of food bank users. In 2022, the proportion of food bank users with employment as their primary income increased even as unemployment reached historic lows, which signals that employment does not guarantee the capacity to meet basic needs.
Research shows that income-geared policy solutions help reduce food insecurity. The PROOF research program has outlined evidence-based policy options that would reduce household food insecurity in Canada. They include increasing social assistance incomes and indexing social assistance to inflation; boosting minimum wages; creating an income floor (e.g. basic income programs); and reducing incoming taxes for low-income households. These measures address the root of the problem by building stronger social safety net supports for people who are living precariously due to unstable and insufficient income.
“Food insecurity is a policy decision” (Li 2021). We must shift our understanding of food insecurity and demand policy action from governments, because food banks cannot solve the problem alone.
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